In another non-spiritual forum, the idea of karma came up and some pretty poor ideas were expressed about it. I wrote an article to explain it. I’ve edited it here for context and supplemented it a bit to fill out some points.
Karma is a Sanskrit word typically translated to mean action or energy. The philosophy holds that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And actually, that’s the way physics defines it. This is a natural law. It is very much about consequence and responsibility and taking care of your family and community. It is closely tied to dharma. This is often translated as purpose but it more deeply means that which sustains. Dharma has 4 levels – personal, time of life, family and social, and natural.
The philosophy teaches how to overcome the weight of your past and end suffering. But like all systems of understanding, it can degrade into simple belief and get saddled with a major share of self-serving interpretations and nonsense. And horrid ideas, like blaming children for their misfortune.
The basics of karma are simple but in practice the flow of action becomes intertwined with everything else and the play becomes “unfathomable” in its complexity.
Sometimes, it’s very clear when the reaction comes back quickly and distinctly. Like when you mess up with your partner. (laughs) But often there’s a lag, so the consequence becomes apparently disconnected from its origin. We may recognize in retrospect something was related to much earlier choices but often that’s anything but obvious.
Clearly, it comes out of a philosophical perspective that sees intelligent design and reincarnation. That a soul (jiva) moves from lifetime to lifetime to progress in the 4 areas of life. But it also resides in a larger set of systems of philosophy. This includes a system of determining truth (Nyaya) more advanced than Spinoza. It is not a system of belief but rather a way of understanding direct experience.
If the response to an action does not immediately unfold, an impression or seed is left behind for future sprouting. There are the seeds of the past of which most of us have “mountains”, the seeds we’re creating now, and the fruit we’re living now from sprouted seeds. The present is a direct consequence of our past, and the future of our present actions.
If you’re familiar with energy, you know it comes in both kinetic and potential forms. This is the sprouted and unsprouted seeds of past action. Subjectively, we experience energy internally as emotions. And that’s a key clue. How we feel is deeply entwined with karma and seeds.
It’s also worth noting that karma, as a law of nature, is impersonal. It does not judge. It’s not good or bad except subjectively. And it’s generally viewed that karma brought forward from past lives doesn’t engage until a person is around 9-14 years old. Young children dying in disasters is thus not “their bad karma”.
Disasters are understood to be the consequence of large blocks of unresolved energy building up in an area seeking resolution. This is much like someone suppressing anger will eventually burst out in uncontrolled rage. When people in the community are not dealing with their stuff, it leaks out or bursts out in other ways in and on the community. We blame the focal point but miss the actual cause.
Obviously, taking care of our baggage is good for everyone. This also gives us a formula for averting disasters – resolving accumulated stress in the community. This is known as creating a Kailash or shield for the community. It’s not the protection we practice in modern times though.
There is certainly the usual instructions for right living. But the main philosophical focus is moving past all this. Karma is essentially unresolved energy. The teaching is that impressions or seeds are left because we didn’t complete the process due to “identification” with results. When we learn to cease identifying, we stop creating new seeds. When we go into deep samadhi, we “roast” the seeds of the past. The energy backlog is resolved. Then we have only the sprouted seeds to deal with.
The broad idea is that the process of karma then continues but we’re no longer caught by it and thus cease to suffer.
Note that this is not about ending polarities. They are inherent in the field of energy. But as we change our relationship with the field of duality, it ceases to bind us.
The relationship of time and action is an interesting one. There are different ways of experiencing time. In one perspective, the above is playing out over long periods of time. But you’ve undoubtedly heard people describe being in the “now”. In that perspective, there is no past and future, only what is immediately present. Karma, from that perspective is meaningless.
There is another perspective where all time is in the present, including past and future. In that perspective, it’s all happening concurrently. No seeds, just simultaneously interrelated actions. We can gain a much better take on the field of action from this perspective. And so on…
In a real sense, the perspective of karma I described is a way of describing the experience at one stage of development. But it’s not a universal truth in the deeper sense because it doesn’t hold up through later stages.
And therein lies a key idea – knowledge is different in different stages of development. There is no one truth but rather a progression of truths. If that seems a stretch, consider your own childhood. The truth of a 2-year-old is not the truth on an 8-year-old or of a teen.
The only reason truth remains constant for you is if you’re not growing. As above, if you’re identified with a conceptual mind-set, you’re resisting growth and creating baggage. In the dynamic universe of action/karma, static is inertia. Open models with room to evolve are the ticket.